Preparing for the endgame: The Bartenders v Sommeliers semi-final

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

20 June 2019

This year marks the final Bartenders v Sommeliers competition. With the scores over the last decade tied at five, our contenders know that if they win they’ll secure bragging rights for their profession for all eternity. Kate Malczewski watches the teams slug it out in the semi-final in anticipation of the final at Imbibe Live

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end – and in the case of Imbibe’s beloved Bartenders v Sommeliers (BvS) competition, all outrageous, bantz-filled, boozy things must come to an end, too.

But not before one last face-off.

Over the past decade, BvS has tasked bartenders and sommeliers with learning the finer points of each other’s professions and facing off in a battle of impressive skill and razor-sharp wit. Teams of bartenders have spent countless hours studying the Court of Master Sommelier standards; somm teams have prostrated themselves at the altar of classic cocktails.

And after 10 years, the competition couldn’t be closer – tied at five-all.

So the stakes on this 11th and final edition are at an all-time high. The winners get to preen in their top-dog status forever.

This year, as a nod to Bartenders and Somms past, we’ve made the teams up out of a combination of grizzled BvS veterans and bright-eyed newbies.

As always, they’ve already had a day of training at Trade Soho. Now it’s time to head to London Cocktail Club in Shoreditch to see whether they have actually learned anything…

Bartenders: The Team Formerly Known as Bartenders
Georgia Billing, City of London Distillery and Bar
Will Hawes, Callooh Callay
Jordan Moore, Trullo
Gergő Muráth, Trailer Happiness
Robyn Wilkie, Genuine Liquorette

Sommeliers: The Viña Coladas
Quentin Loisel, Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms
Mattia Mazzi, The River Café
Charles Pashby-Taylor, Justerini & Brooks
Romain de Courcy, Trade Soho
Gergely Barsi Szabó, Bibendum

Cressida Lawlor, London Cocktail Club
Nigel Lister, consultant
Kate Malczewski, Imbibe

Round one: Blind tasting

The competition kicks off with the blind tasting round. Each competitor must match the grape varieties of six wines and the names of three gin and three whisky pours. The teams are well prepared for this round – some, perhaps, a little too much. ‘Will and I “studied” the wines at Callooh Callay yesterday,’ says Gergő Muráth of Trailer Happiness, motioning to teammate and Callooh bar manager Will Hawes.

Are they battling headaches, or just dizzy with excitement? It matters not: BvS stops for no hangover, and the blind tasting begins. The somms are eager to earn the five bonus points awarded to the first team to finish, and they all hand in their tasting sheets in record time.

Ultimately, Muráth and Hawes’ aforementioned study session isn’t enough to help them win the challenge. Somm Gergely Barsi Szabó proves himself the MVP of the round as the only competitor earning full marks, and his teammates manage near-perfect scores, as well. The somms start the day with a strong lead.

Bartenders: 19
Sommeliers: 32

Round two: Classic cocktails

This year, we’re shaking things up in the classic cocktail round by asking each team to make not one, but two drinks. While one competitor makes their assigned cocktail and chats to the judges, their teammate must prepare another assigned classic in the background, to be served together with the first.

This means timing is key: If a drink sits one moment too long on the bar, unintended dilution could affect the precious balance of flavour.

The Team Formerly Known as Bartenders is first up, with Muráth drawing the Whisky Sour as his classic cocktail and Genuine Liquorette’s Robyn Wilkie drawing the Mojito. Muráth takes the ‘chatting amiably’ position in front of the judges, while Wilkie gets to work on her drink at another station.

‘We crushed this round last year,’ Muráth says confidently.

He dives into the Whisky Sour’s history and outlines the role of each ingredient in the drink. He opts for bourbon instead of scotch, and serves the cocktail straight up.

Murath makes a Whisky Sour
Murath makes a Whisky Sour

‘I like serving my sour without ice to show off the consistency,’ he explains.

Meanwhile, Wilkie holds off on making her drink until a few minutes in to Muráth’s presentation, knowing that her Mojito will come together more quickly. They serve their drinks to the judges at the same time.

Judge Cressida Lawlor of London Cocktail Club tastes their creations first, followed by wine consultant Nigel Lister. They agree that serving the Whisky Sour straight up was an excellent decision, but Lawlor is less pleased with the Mojito, deeming it ‘not quite balanced’. Still, the general consensus is that both bartenders have done full justice to their profession.

Next it’s the sommeliers’ turn to shine. Quentin Loisel of Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms stations himself in front of the judges to prepare a Negroni, and Justerini & Brooks’ Charles Pashby-Taylor makes a Pornstar Martini next to him.

‘I’m the pornstar, but he’s gonna make the drink,’ quips Loisel. As he stirs the Negroni, Loisel gives a brief history of cocktail culture and tells the story of Count Negroni, who inspired the recipe for the drink.

It’s impressive chat, and gives Pashby-Taylor more time to make his drink. Once again, both cocktails are presented simultaneously – and one of them is on fire.

Pashby-Taylor's Pornstar on fire
Pashby-Taylor's Pornstar on fire

‘I don’t think a flaming passion fruit belongs in a classic Pornstar,’ says Lawlor. She also questions whether the Negroni has suffered from too much dilution, though Lister is pleased with the cocktail’s balance.

Overall, the judges compliment the somms’ service but aren’t sold on the drinks themselves. The bartenders – as you would expect – win the round, though not by enough to take the top spot. >>

Bartenders: 81
Sommeliers: 89

Round three: Free pour

The free-pour round approaches, and each team nominates one of their own to pour 35ml and 50ml measures of spirits and 175ml of wine by eye. Our standards for this round are tough – points are awarded for each measure only if it’s within 5ml of the intended pour.
Hawes and Szabó are chosen for the challenge. ‘Are we at the beginning or the end of the month?’ Szabó asks jokingly.

Given their pours, it seems we’re at the end. Both competitors come up wickedly short for nearly every measure, though Hawes manages to nail the 35ml pour. He gains his team 10 points and the lead.

Bartenders: 91
Sommeliers: 89

Round four: Food matching and wine service

The somm team – Viña Coladas – are up first, with Romain de Courcy of Trade Soho taking food orders and making pairing suggestions at our hypothetical BvS Bistro.

The somm team plan their wine service strategy
The somm team plan their wine service strategy

He’s clearly in his element, starting things off with aperitif orders (one Woo Woo and a glass of prosecco, please), then rattling off recommendations with ease. The Chardonnay will make an ideal match for the butternut squash risotto, he says, and the passion fruit parfait will marry nicely with Bulleit Bourbon. His customers, the judges, don’t make things easy for him, but de Courcy sails through.

Next, teammate Mattia Mazzi of The River Café approaches the table for the service portion. He’s relaxed and friendly, recalling each order impeccably and generally serving according to the Court of Master Sommelier standards – though our judges note a few hiccups. ‘The prosecco label wasn’t facing the guest when poured,’ says Lawlor, again proving herself the toughest judge of the bunch.

It’s time for the bartenders to have a go, and Georgia Billing of City of London Distillery and Bar is on food-matching duty.

‘It’s my husband’s birthday,’ judge Lawlor tells Billing, motioning to Imbibe’s events producer, Ed Warr. ‘We’re going all out.’

Billing offers the table an aperitif, and Lawlor takes the opportunity to order shots of Wray & Nephew and Midori for the table. ‘Of course, not a problem,’ Billing replies, coolly unfazed.

Billing takes the judges' orders
Billing takes the judges' orders

She moves onto mains. Lawlor wants the Beef Wellington with extra-smooth mash, and Billing recommends a glass of the Shiraz, to match the richness of the dish. ‘That sounds great, but can I get 10ml of Monkey Shoulder in the wine?’ Lawlor asks. Without missing a beat, Billing obliges, and she makes it through the rest of the table with solid suggestions.

Trullo’s Jordan Moore has the difficult task of service. First he brings out the shots, as per Lawlor’s request, then serves Warr first as the guest of honour. He’s got a warm demeanour, and even makes alternative suggestions when Lister expresses uncertainty about his order. Most importantly, he follows the standards of the Court seamlessly.

The judges agree that both the bartenders and sommeliers teams provided impressive matches and spot-on service, but, impressively, the bartenders nailed the details, winning the round and solidifying their lead.

Bartenders: 166
Sommeliers: 156.5

Round five: Mystery box cocktail creation

The somms have one last opportunity to pull ahead with the mystery box challenge. Each team receives a box – or in this case, a tray – with an array of seemingly disparate products, and one competitor from each team must craft an original cocktail from the ingredients in front of the judges.

First, the groups examine their mystery box ingredients and brainstorm serve ideas. ‘We could do a dessert cocktail with coffee, Licor 43 and coconut cream,’ suggests Pashby-Taylor, who has been chosen to present the somms’ cocktail to the judging panel.

The sommeliers ultimately decide to take a different direction with their drink. Wearing an elaborate headdress of pineapple leaves, Pashby-Taylor crafts a drink of muddled pineapple, Wray & Nephew, vermouth, lime and a bit of kombucha. He dubs the creation the Viña Colada after his team. ‘It’s not like a Piña Colada at all, but we’re pretending we’re bartenders, so if we say it’s cool then it is.’

The somms put the finishing touches on their mystery box cocktail
The somms put the finishing touches on their mystery box cocktail

His theatrical presentation has the judges in stitches, and they appreciate his choice to serve the drink in a tea cup with a caramelised pineapple garnish. ‘He did get a bit carried away in his shaking though,’ comments Lister, noting a touch of over-dilution in the cocktail and the rum’s overpowering nature.

Meanwhile, the bartenders have been plotting a mystery box cocktail of their own. With date syrup, Midori, miso, tonic syrup, raspberry shrub and a load of basil among their secret ingredients, they have certainly got their work cut out for them. ‘We could do a Midori Sour with coconut and kombucha,’ offers Billing. ‘And we could garnish with the basil,’ adds Moore.

With this foundation in mind, Hawes takes the stage for the bartenders. He’s chosen to build on their original idea, shaking up lime juice, sugar syrup, coconut milk, Midori and egg white until smooth, then straining in the ginger and lemon kombucha to avoid any unwanted particles and garnishing with basil.

‘It’s called The Shoreditch,’ he says, ‘because it’s got loads of healthy things in it.’ Clearly he’s referring to the Wray.

The judges are impressed with the drink’s flavour profile, as Hawes has managed to balance the strong flavour of the rum. Plus, between his expert shaking technique and the straining of the kombucha, the cocktail’s consistency is deemed to be excellent.

This round is the closest one yet, but Hawes wins by just a few points. Combined with their previous scores, the bartenders head into the Imbibe Live final with a firm lead – but watch out, those somms love a good comeback story…

Bartenders: 190.5
Sommeliers: 178.5

Thank you to the team at London Cocktail Club Shoreditch for hosting the competition, and for all their help on the day. Another special thank you to our judges and to Enotria&Coe for supplying the wine and spirits.

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